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Opened in 1904, Golf Resort Karlovy Vary was the first golf course in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Opened in 1904, Golf Resort Karlovy Vary was the first golf course in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. (Courtesy of Golf Resort Karlovy Vary)

Great golf is one of many surprises in the spa country of the western Czech Republic

Clive AgranBy Clive Agran,

Driving west from Prague through the undulating countryside is particularly revealing for those of us who hold the mistaken preconception that the Czech Republic probably lags way behind the West in pretty much everything that matters.

The roads are perfectly adequate; the people are cheerful, well clothed and friendly; the scenery is pretty; in fact, it's remarkably similar to most other European countries. Although the per capita income is lower than it is in, say, the United Kingdom, France or Germany, there's no grinding poverty, and you don't feel uncomfortable or conspicuous walking around the streets anywhere.

After a couple of hours motoring, you arrive in the westernmost region of the country, Karlovy Vary. Bordering Germany and with a generous sprinkling of delightful spa towns such as Marianske Lazne (Marienbad) and Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad), the area boasts the oldest and many of the best golf courses in the Czech Republic.

Western Bohemia: Tennis, fencing -- and, now, golf

The rich and famous -- such as Casanova, Beethoven, Mozart and Kafka -- have been visiting beautiful western Bohemia, staying in grand hotels, enjoying the splendid architecture and sipping the medicinal waters for centuries.

To amuse themselves, they played tennis, fenced and then, in 1904, teed it up at Golf Resort Karlovy Vary, the first golf course in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Originally only nine holes, it moved in 1933 to its present site on the edge of the spectacularly beautiful town of Karlsbad and expanded to 18 holes. Weaving through the forest and along the valley of the River Tepla, the new course fell upon hard times during the depression of the 1930s.

Like the other nine Czechoslovakian courses in existence at the end of the 1930s, Golf Resort Karlovy Vary suffered again during World War II. Largely restored after the fighting had ceased, it then struggled to survive during the Communist era. Now, however, a bright, new, optimistic future lies ahead as a combination of a burgeoning, native, middle-class membership of nearly 800 (the largest in the country) and an increasing volume of visitors enjoy this 6,800-yard, par-72 challenge.

Despite the rather threatening proximity of the adjacent forest and a generous splash of water hazards, Golf Resort Karlovy Vary's fairways are plenty wide enough to make it testing but not too tough. Beautifully presented and in excellent condition, it bears comparison with the very best inland courses that Europe can offer. Be careful, the attractive wooden paths are perilously slippy when wet!

Royal Golf Club Marianske Lazne: Quirky but fit for a king

Golf Resort Karlovy Vary just edges out by a couple of years nearby Royal Golf Club Marianske Lazne for the title of oldest club in the country. Nestled in the outskirts of the delightfully attractive spa town from which it borrows its name, the Royal Golf Club Marianske Lazne is a wonderful parkland course that reeks of both history and class.

King Edward VII of England opened the course on Aug. 21, 1905, and paid regular visits thereafter. With its elegant rows of trees separating adjacent fairways and smallish greens, it provides an authentic historical flashback to when handlebar moustaches and hickory shafts ruled the fairways.

With back-to-back par 3s just before the turn, this quirky but classic parkland challenge offers an experience that is further enhanced by the exceptionally comfortable clubhouse with its collection of sepia prints of a bygone era decorating its walls. Having hosted a regular European Tour event and had its Royal status confirmed by Queen Elizabeth II, the hope must be that the Royal Golf Club Marianske Lazne's next 100 years are markedly less turbulent.

Contemporary contrast

Providing a contrasting but nevertheless enjoyable experience right at the other end of the historical continuum is Golf Club Sokolov. Roughly halfway between Karlovy Vary and Mariasnke Lazne and only opened half-a-dozen years ago, it sits on what was previously an open cast coal mine.

What might at first seem an unpromising prospect must have provided the makers with an enormous scope of a blank but intriguing canvas. Significant elevations, quasi chasms and unnatural water features -- together with the freedom of an already damaged landscape -- must have set their pulse racing faster than a downhill putt at Augusta National. With half the funds coming from the European Union, financial considerations didn't provide much of a constraint, either.

The complete absence of trees and several, blind, uphill tee-shots help create a links-like illusion, while Golf Club Sokolov's dramatic elevation changes generate considerable visual appeal. Undoubtedly improving with age, the course is destined to be exceptional.

Not quite so young but only about 10 years old is Golf Resort Frantiskovy Lazne. Just a few kilometers from the border with Germany, this pretty parkland course obviously attracts German golfers looking for an inexpensive round on foreign soil. With plenty of trees and the occasional lake, the course weaves a pleasant figure eight through the attractive hilly terrain. It's perfectly walkable, but carts are available.

Although Golf Club Kynzvart is one of the newest in the country, it is set in such historic surroundings and with a castle next door that it feels very much older than it is. On the fringe of the Slakov Forest, about half the holes are in the woods, while the other half are comparatively open. This was once popular hunting country and magnificent red deer still venture onto the fairways.

All the holes are named, and most have an interesting story attached to them. The seventh boasts the longest bunker in the Czech Republic, and there's an enormous white rock to the right of the 14th green that was once a popular rendezvous for young lovers. Nowadays, the adjacent 14-bedroom hotel is considered a more comfortable venue.

Opened in 2001, Gary Player designed the pretty parkland golf course at Astoria Golf Resort. Occupying a valley floor and surrounded by imposing hills, the description "Scottish style" is forgivable.

Apart from the comparatively dry first four holes, water is never far away and is the principal hazard on this easy walking course in Cihelny, which is not very far from Karlovy Vary. Venue for a number of important tournaments including the European Boys Team Championship, Astoria is rightly considered one of the best.

With the recent opening of a new comfortable clubhouse and an elegant veranda that wouldn't look out of place in Georgia or Alabama, Golf Club Haje took another significant step in the right direction. Although presently only nine holes, this pleasant course provides an enjoyable round and is worth a visit if only to tackle the treacherous island green on the final hole.

The fashion today is to create a spa close to a golf course. In this region of the Czech Republic, the reverse has worked just as well.

Although in his 60s, with a handicap of 15 and lifetime earnings comfortably below $100, Clive Agran nevertheless still believes he can win a major. Arguably England's most gifted golf writer, when not dreaming of glory he's scouring the globe simultaneously searching for lost balls and great golf courses. Follow Clive on Twitter at @cliveagran.

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